Anarchism + Despair = Heterarchy
[Yep... for a while I was trying to invent my own political ideology. This text was written years ago. It looks like I was last working on it in 2007, though there are sections that are much older than that. My opinions have shifted a bit since then... but I think it's worth bringing this to light.]
What is Heterarchy?
Lord John Dalberg-Acton, the first Baron of Acton, once famously wrote that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Heterarchy is the movement against this corruption, the movement to prevent every form of power from becoming absolute. Power takes many forms, and heterarchists strive to counter each form of power with another form of power. Thus heterarchists work against both big government and the influence of large corporations. For heterarchists, any movement, (left-wing, right-wing, centrist, outsider, or even “heterarchist”!) will likely become corrupt once it gains power, if not sooner, and thus will necessitate resistance. Therefore, in a certain sense, heterarchy is not a specific movement, but a style of activism in which many people of various movements may participate. Heterarchists strive to avoid all absolutism and all dogmatism, seeing the attempt at doctrinaire “purity” as an instance of such corruption.
Simply put, heterarchy is the radical struggle against any system in which any person or group of people is elevated above another: racism, sexism, economic (class) domination, intellectual or stylistic elitism, the state, corporate authority, and every other form of oppression, coercion, or hierarchy. Note that heterarchy is not a regime, or an ideal system, but a struggle. Part of this struggle is the struggle of the intellect to discern what is necessary for this over-all struggle. A person who engages in heterarchy is a heterarchist, and the tradition of ideas and beliefs used in the struggle are referred to as heterarchism, a tradition that grows and evolves continuously. In sum, the main purpose of heterarchists is to organize against oppression.
Where does the term “heterarchy” come from?
The word “heterarchy” comes from mathematical logic and information theory. (More specifically, it was influentially used by the philosopher Douglas Hofstadter, in his famous book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid in a non-political context.) It was often used in computer science before it was applied to philosophy, sociology, and politics. In these fields, heterarchical structures are those which are too complex to fit neatly into a simple hierarchical schematic. For instance, heterarchies may contain “strange loops” where, say, A is above B, B is above C, and C is above A. In some cases, A may be “above” A or “include” A – this is an organizational principle known as recursion. For instance, a computer program may have a subroutine that “calls” itself, or a mathematical set may include itself, such as the set of all sets that have more than one member. Many of the more sophisticated computer languages being used today, particularly those that involve recursive modular programming, are heterarchical.
In addition, heterarchies appear in nature. Many phenomena, when observed scientifically, rather than according to the conceptual category systems of, for instance, Aristotle and Linnaeus, do not fit very easily into such rigid hierarchical categorization. It appears, for instance, that the human brain is organized heterarchically, rather than hierarchically – it contains “strange loops”. It may be that the first usage of the word “heterarchy” was by neurophysiologist Warren McCullough, when he used it in 1945 to describe the structure of the brain. Perhaps heterarchy in its broadest sense could be interpreted as the understanding that reality is too complex to fit into any rigid hierarchical organization.
Etymologically, the word is derived from hetera, meaning “other,” or “different,” and archon, meaning “power,” or “organization,” and this can be used as a gloss of the meaning of heterarchy, such as “All power to the others,” or “alternative organization.”
Heterarchy sounds like anarchy. What’s the difference between heterarchy and anarchy?
Good question. Although anarchists and heterarchists are similar, have similar opponents, and can make “common cause,” working together on specific projects, and although there may be some overlap between the two groups, the difference is this: a heterarchist need not believe in any future utopia in which all forms of hierarchy and coercion have been abolished. (Nor need they believe in such a society in the past or present either.) It could be put this way:
anarchism + cynicism and despair = heterarchy.
Some heterarchists may believe that such a perfectly balanced society is possible, or even that it is definitely inevitable; others can be agnostics, who are not sure whether such a society is possible or not. Probably most heterarchists, however, will believe that the idea of such a society is a myth, and that we will never arrive at an eternally perfect society – a heterarchist may indeed assert that the very notion of such a society is self-contradictory and that it is inconsistent to believe it could exist, even in theory. Heterarchists stress that the struggle will be continuous, that there will never come a time when activists can relax, that society will always have problems, and that it’s impossible and pointless to speculate about the far-flung future, let alone eternity, which is by definition more than can possibly be conceived.
Heterarchists may indeed claim that this type of perfectly balanced society, without any form of social hierarchy, would actually be undesirable. Some may emphasize the ethical importance of activism in the development of a human being, and claim that someone who had no reason to fight for justice would somehow be less than fully human, as in Martin Luther King’s statement “He who has nothing to die for, has nothing to live for.” Others see a positive value in power, along the lines of Friedrich Nietzsche, and claim not to be working to destroy all power (as an anarchist would) but to increase power – to help the powerless become more empowered. For these heterarchists, struggle is the existential condition of humankind. In order to exist, humans must struggle.
Similarly, without such belief in a future, balanced society, heterarchists need not believe in “progress” or a linear direction of history. Certainly heterarchists recognize that things change, and that societies are sometimes profoundly altered, but most see no reason to believe that this change would be all for the better, or, for that matter, for the worse. Heterarchism allows for a more complex picture of history to emerge, with struggle infusing every part of it. Similarly, there is no necessity for heterarchists to believe that human beings are essentially good (or essentially evil, for that matter) – for instance, that there was some perfect “state of nature” in which “noble savages” lived perfectly balanced, non-coercive, non-hierarchical lives, free from struggle and power, and that civilization has somehow destroyed our inherent freedom.
For heterarchists, the entire question of whether a perfectly balanced, utopian society is possible or desirable simply does not matter – it is immaterial. What matters is working here and now, to make this society more just.
In the final analysis, what matters is not what you believe, but what you do.
It sounds like Heterarchists don’t believe in anything. Is heterarchy just a fancy name for no theory at all, or nihilism?
It is not accurate to say that heterarchists do not believe in anything, any more than it is accurate to say that ventriloquists don’t believe in anything. Ventriloquists believe in all kinds of belief systems, about politics, religion, philosophy, and what have you, which they may choose individually – some are presumably Catholics, some Communists, some Anti-Vivisectionists, and so forth. Some might be nihilists, but that’s not the point. None of that matters when it comes to the question of whether or not they are ventriloquists. Although ventriloquism exists, there is no dogmatic text written by any ancient guru, to which ventriloquists must be faithful in order to be ventriloquists. Ventriloquism is a practice. So long as people are operating puppets and “throwing” their voices, they are ventriloquists, no matter what they believe.
So it is with heterarchy. Heterarchy is a practice, which people may participate in, or not. Some believe in pre-existent ideologies. Some invent new theories. Individual heterarchists may weigh the evidence for these theories, and decide what they believe. But what matters are their actions. If a person is struggling against oppression, then that person is a heterarchist, whether they know it or not. Heterarchists may observe many separate struggles and seek to find the ways in which these struggles intersect, like puzzle pieces, building strategies to more effective action by bringing larger groups of people together, but getting everyone to agree on every point of some abstract philosophy isn’t the point, and heterarchists will often notice that a healthy debate and controversy is often more stimulating and effective than absolute conformity and uniform consensus. Rather than saying “heterarchists believe nothing,” one might say “heterarchists believe nothing in particular,” which is to say that heterarchists believe all kinds of things, some of which are in dynamic, creative tension with others, forming a body of beliefs that is ever-expanding. Refusing to stagnate in some previously-held positions, heterarchism is the most creative of all the ideologies.
What do heterarchists do?
In short, they organize against oppression. A person who organizes against oppression, no matter what he believes, is, by definition, a heterarchist. Therefore heterarchy is really nothing “new,” no brand new product to consume, but simply a useful description for what countless people have been doing for centuries, perhaps millennia, so that such people will have an answer when someone asks them whose side they are on. If you organize against oppression, but you are uncomfortable calling yourself an anarchist, “heterarchist” would be a handy term.
If the organizations that heterarchists help form become oppressive in themselves, heterarchists will organize against these groups as well. Thus, in a capitalist society, they might organize with liberals and socialists; if this creates an oppressive state apparatus, they will organize against the state, by forming rebellious unions, for instance. If the unions become corrupt and enamored of their own power, heterarchists will work toward the direct rule of the workers, say through workers’ councils. If the workers’ councils cease to recognize the rights of individuals, then heterarchists will organize against them, perhaps through affinity groups. If affinity groups become exclusive “cliques” of chic fashionistas and hipsters, then heterarchists will organize against them as well, and so on and so on forever. Whatever hierarchy or oppression exists in society, heterarchists will organize against that. Ultimately, it is up to each individual heterarchist to identify the forms of power that exist in society (some of which can be quite subtle), to seek out those who would be allies in that specific struggle, and to resist.
For more information on what heterarchists do, see specific heterarchist projects, below.
What is the official literature of heterarchism?
There is none. Which is not to say that no heterarchical literature exists. There is simply nothing official, no dogma, no party line. Heterarchists tend to be eclectic, gaining wisdom from many sources and reassembling them creatively. Heterarchism, thus, tends to be heterogeneous. Any person can write her own heterarchical manifesto; alternatively, existing literature may be appropriated and re-interpreted along heterarchist lines.
Where do heterarchist ideas come from?
As already stated, many different traditions in literature may be appropriated and re-interpreted along heterarchist lines. Here are some historical precedents for heterarchist theory:
Baron de Montesquieu: his theory of the “separation of powers” is one of the earliest proto-heterarchist concepts.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other “founding fathers” of the United States: the concept of “checks and balances” between the branches of government, built into the Constitution of the United States, and explored in such documents as the Federalist Papers, could be seen as an attempt at a sustainable heterarchy.
Some of Marx’s writings, particularly those from his youth, could be interpreted as heterarchical, or at least quasi-heterarchical. In one famous phrase, for instance, he claimed to be performing “the relentless critique of all that exists.” A direct precursor to heterarchism came from Marx’s theory of “praxis,” which he advanced in his Theses on Feuerbach. The eleventh thesis, for instance, famously states that “Philosophers have done well in interpreting the world. The point, however, is to change it.” Heterarchism tends to take the idea of praxis much further than Marxists usually do, however, for heterarchists often point out that in a truly materialistic analysis of political struggle, it does not matter what the activists believe – what matters is their involvement in the struggle. Thus, if a great organizer for workers’ rights happens to be, deep in the back of her mind, a fundamentalist Christian, that is perfectly fine, from a heterarchist perspective. What matters is what she does. While Marxists can sometimes be quite dogmatic in their belief systems, it is interesting to point out that Marx himself was not – he drew quite heterogeneously from a variety of sources when formulating his ideas, from Hegel to economists like David Ricardo to radical utopians like Saint-Simon to Shakespeare to Classical Greek poets.
In Marxist thought, Trotsky’s notion of permanent revolution could quite easily be interpreted as heterarchist. Rosa Luxembourg’s concept of the dialectic between spontaneity and organization also resonates with heterarchists. In addition, the Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci has written about “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” which is quite compatible with the heterarchist concept of fighting against oppression without believing that there will ever be an end to this fight, in which oppression will have vanished from the earth. The Marxist writer Theodore Adorno also has written about his pessimism, without swerving from his belief in Marxist revolution. Other writers significant for many heterarchists include the unusual and heterodox Marxist writers Mikhail Bakhtin, Anton Pannekoek, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gyorgy Lukacs, and others.
As already indicated, it’s likely that many heterarchists will be former anarchists (or current anarchists) and the anarchist tradition (Proudhon, Bakunin, Malatesta, Goldman, etc.) is very strong among heterarchists.
For many heterarchists, Nietzsche is the greatest inspiration, with his perspectivalism, his insistence that power is not necessarily negative, and his criticism of socialism and the “ascetic ideal” that lay behind both it and Christianity. In addition, Nietzsche wrote about agon, or struggle, as an essential virtue.
Albert Camus’s book “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which Sisyphus is happy pushing his stone to the top of the hill, when he knows that it will only fall again, is quite heterarchist, and indeed Camus in this book makes an appeal for pessimistic activism - a political activism that strives even though it recognizes that it will fail.
Dada, in its willingness to appropriate and reinterpret material from a vast array of sources, without trying to impose any final coherence or meaning onto the result, could be seen as proto-heterarchist. Likewise the “Cut-up” method of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs. Another cultural movement to which heterarchy owes something is jazz, with its insistence on participation, spontaneity, improvisation, drawing from tradition and creatively reinterpreting that tradition.
Perhaps the most important predecessors of heterarchist thought were the Situationists, notably Guy Debord. His ringing criticisms of both Marxism and anarchism paved the way for heterarchist thought.
Many heterarchists have been deeply influenced by modern social movements such as the struggle for civil rights and the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and other radical organizations, Feminism, Gay Rights, anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world, the sexual revolution, and union organizing, among many others.
Michel Foucault, with his concept of power that “comes from everywhere”, as well as his notion of resistance that must always accompany power, is very heterarchist in many passages. He also writes of “pessimistic activism.”
Many who become interested in heterarchy become introduced to heterarchy (and radical politics in general) through the social movement of punk and hardcore. In recent years, some punks who do not believe in the possibility of a future Anarchist utopia and who do not wish to identify themselves with the anarchist movement for this reason have begun to refer to themselves as “Chaos Punks.”
Another major movement through which many people become introduced to heterarchist thought is the international protest movement against capitalist globalization, including the “carnival against capitalism” and the black bloc. In some ways, the growth of heterarchist ideology could be seen as an attempt at a concrete conceptualization of the theory behind these practices.
Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto LeClau, with their theory of “agonism,” adapted from a combination of Marxist and Nietzschean ideas, come very close to heterarchism.
Some have also seen a kinship between heterarchy and certain religious concepts. Struggling for social justice is an important part of Judaism, Christianity, Sikh Dharma, and many other religious traditions. In some Buddhist thought, attention is given to areas that do not obey a “top-down” structure, such as a “food chain” with no “top” or “bottom”: Hawk kills snake, snake kills bear, bear kills hawk. In Islam, also, there is the idea of “jihad” which implies a very dedicated struggle. According to the Quran, there are two aspects of jihad – the outer, or “lesser” jihad, which is a political struggle for social justice, and the “greater jihad” which is a continuous internal struggle within each individual. In stressing that continuous struggle is more important than arriving at any comfortable or complacent success, Islam is quite compatible with heterarchy.
What the relationship between heterarchy and other political ideologies?
Heterarchists, for the most part, believe in working with, and participating in, other political movements, rather than refusing to participate out of a puritanical search for the absolutely politically correct ideology. Since what matters is not belief but action, heterarchists find it more productive to work with people whose beliefs are “wrong” than to boycott all political action and to become a passive spectator to one’s own life. Therefore, heterarchists will work together with (an even join organizations of) anarchists, socialists, communists, libertarians, liberals, and even conservatives, if it seems tactically prudent to do so. This does not mean that once they are working with people who have other ideologies, that they will not debate with others and try to promote heterarchy.
What is the relationship between heterarchists and anarchists?
Despite their differences, one should not think of anarchists and heterarchists as opposed to one another. Some heterarchists still cling, in the back of their minds or in public, to a hope for a better world. Besides this group, there is a large overlap between the two groups in the form of so-called “ethical anarchists”. These are people who identify themselves as anarchists, but who do not see anarchy as a political ideology, but as a (personal) ethic, a system of beliefs that says that they should never coerce others and that they should stand up and resist when someone tries to coerce them or someone else. Such a person, it would seem, would not have to believe the actual practicality of a real stateless, classless society without any form of hierarchy, but might still see the importance of the concept of such a society as an ideal, towards which to strive. All of this seems in keeping with heterarchism. In general, anarchists and heterarchists get along very well, and quite a few people will identify themselves with both terms more or less interchangeably.
If there is any dispute between anarchists and heterarchists, it is only between heterarchists and the (very small, if existent) portion of anarchists that are against all organizing in principle. For most anarchists, organization is very good and encouraged – remember Joe Hill’s famous last words, “Don’t weep for me, boys – organize!” It is only hierarchical organization with which most anarchists have a quarrel, and in so far as they reject hierarchical organization, yet seek new, creative, non-hierarchical means of organization, these anarchists are really identical with heterarchists. The image of the anarchist who absolutely refuses all forms of organization is really little more than a straw man, a distraction from the debates on real issues that face modern activists, and for this reason, it is sometimes claimed that “heterarchy” is simply the name that modern anarchists give for their ideology to distinguish it from the cartoonish “anarchism” that occupies national and international consciousness, and which is speciously used as a synonym for “chaos”. For this reason, it is sometimes said that “heterarchy is the true anarchy,” but this, in itself, is a somewhat un-heterarchical statement, implying as it does that there is one true heterarchy (and anarchy) and that any deviation from this dogmatic party line is a false heterarchy (or false anarchy). More often it is said that heterarchy includes anarchy – that while anarchy is the strict prohibition of all power, heterarchy is more open-minded, and can allow for some forms of power, so long as they are off-set by other forms of power. Alternatively, some view anarchy and heterarchy as a “Venn diagram” - two sets, with some territory overlapping and some territory distinct.
How does heterarchy relate to socialism?
As with anarchism, heterarchism is not really opposed to socialism, but seeks within socialism to find the points of greatest dynamic tension and to foster these for the development of socialism beyond its present limitations. Thus heterarchists emphasize our common ground with socialists, our mutual desire to work for the interests of the oppressed peoples of the earth, but at the same time heterarchists fulfill the critical project of Marxism by criticizing much of what passes for socialism in the world. (Of course, there is a “Venn diagram,” so to speak, between anarchism and socialism as well, since many anarchist writers, such as Bakunin and Malatesta, considered themselves socialists.)
First, it should go without saying that heterarchists critique and condemn the genocides and other human rights violations that have been perpetrated by totalitarian regimes supposedly in the name of socialism, such as Hitler’s “National Socialism” or the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Most heterarchists would include the horrors of Stalinism in Russia and of certain Communists in China within this group, roundly denounce all of those responsible for such acts. In so far as heterarchists criticize such crimes against humanity, they are no different from many socialists, who consider Stalin’s policies and those of his emulators throughout the world not as the fulfillment but as the betrayal of socialist principles. Most heterarchists would go further, criticizing also many of Lenin’s own actions, such as his persecution of the so-called “Makhnovites” in the Ukraine and elsewhere (with the help of Trotsky), and suppression of the Kronstadt sailors. In so far as heterarchists make this critique, they are no different from socialist followers of Rosa Luxembourg and other critics of Lenin, and from many, many anarchists, for whom Makhnov is a great hero.
But heterarchists tend to go much further, applying their critical acumen to socialist theory itself. Let us focus for a moment on the specific form of socialism, or communism, known as Marxism. Heterarchism strives to be the most rigorously historical form of radical thought, and to be more rigorously scientific than Marxism. First, as the most rigorously historical form of radical thought, heterarchism takes a precise, detailed look at history, noting the ways in which history has been more complex than the rigid schematic that Marxism tries to impose upon the facts. Heterarchists maintain, against the idiotic propaganda issued by “democratic” and capitalist education systems of the world, as well as the absurd exaggerations of communists who enthusiastically try to prove their overweening devotion to Marx, that socialism and communism did not start with Marxism. A careful examination of the facts will reveal that socialism and communism are complex movements with long histories extending throughout many societies back into the ancient world. Much of Marx’s writing concerns his response to previously existing socialist movements. Heterarchist historians contextualize the history of Marxism within the broader socialist and communist movements without seeing either as identical to the other.
More broadly, one can see that the Marxist conception of history is an embarrassment, and one that could be seen as ethnocentric or even racist. Derived from the conception of history proposed by Kant and expanded upon by Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, it has only a tangential relation to the facts, which it must awkwardly corral into blockheaded binary categories. In particular, the notion of an “oriental” stage in history, as Marx describes it, cannot be taken seriously by any serious historian. Even Marx’s descriptions of the “feudalist” and “capitalist” stages of history, which are more nuanced and insightful, contain vagaries that a scholarly disposition could not allow. When, precisely, did the era of feudalism end and the capitalist era begin? If capitalism begins with the establishment of a capitalist class, couldn’t one see evidence of the beginnings of this even in quite ancient Greece, with the production of certain commodities involved in Athenian mercantilism? But let’s put aside the history of Greece, which Marx, with a bias towards the history of the West, over-emphasizes. Where does the history of the Kshatriya caste in India fit into Marx’s scheme? What of the trade routes on the spice road through Southeast Asia?
Marxists often claim to be scientific, and Engels called their movement “scientific socialism” dubbing their opponents “utopian socialists.” Indeed, much of the Communist Manifesto is a critique and repudiation of those whom Marx and Engels considered to be “utopian.” This was definitely a step in the right direction, for which Marxists should be applauded. But Marxists do not go far enough in this direction, and heterarchists stress the importance of going further, being more rigorously scientific. Marx may claimed that none of his ideas were dogmas and that socialists should attempt to determine the validity of his statements themselves, through praxis. But in practice, few Marxian socialists have attempted to do this, and Marxian literature tends to treat Marx’s writings as a truth to which one must be loyal rather than a scientific proposition to be tested. Furthermore, Marx never really used anything approaching the scientific method to arrive at his positions, many of which are not really testable theories at all.
The essence of the scientific method is repeatable results – experimental results that may be validated by the scientific community when another researcher repeats one’s experiment. For something like a dialectical progress to history, there can be no scientific test, since there is only one history to examine. Therefore, heterarchists will strive to construct genuine economic experiments – not seen as the culmination, or victory of the progress of human history, but specific, concrete, discrete experiments, which will at best open paths for further study.
At a deeper level, Marx’s very notion of science is itself unscientific. In fact, of course, he typically did not use the term “science,” but rather the German word “Wissenschaft,” which has a somewhat different connotation than the English word “science”. For Hegel, for instance, his ideas were “scientific” because they had a systematicity and rigor that Schelling’s philosophy lacked. Marx’s conception was somewhat similar, except that that he also emphasized the importance of “materialism” – for him, Hegel’s system was “inverted” because it was “ideal,” and by reorienting Hegelianism on the basis of materialism, Marx would correct this (in fact, Hegel had begun this process shortly before he died, by studying and lecturing about economics). But Marx’s “materialism” is really derived from a dialectical inversion of idealism rather than any empirical evidence. Indeed, by circularly defining materialism as his interpretation of reality and rejecting all other interpretations of reality as “idealism”, Marx creates a “materialism” that is not only not scientific – it is downright anti-scientific. Science thrives on the possibility of multiple interpretations of reality. That is the essence of the method of creating new scientific theories that are then subject to empirical testing. By rejecting those explanations that are not deemed “materialist” – by Marx’s definition – ahead of time, before any experiment has been performed, Marxists in fact retard the progress of science.
Merely the term “Marxism” demonstrates the lack of scientific rigor in this tradition. Does any other science have this fate? Do people ever refer to physics as “Newtonism,” chemistry as “Levoisierism,” or biology as “Mendelism”? (In fact, the scientific community usually only uses such terms for discarded theories, such as Mesmerism, Lamarckism, or Lysenkoism.) Explanatory models that are considered useful in making predictions by scientists usually lose their connection to a specific theorist and become, so to speak, the common property of the scientific community, subject to constant revision by future scientists. Wouldn’t that be the more socialist option? Scientists never treat scientific writings as unquestionable certainty to be quoted as scripture. Indeed, the most respected scientists in history are those whose theories, however helpful, have been largely disproven and rejected – such as Newton’s theories, which, though they have been supplanted by relativistic and quantum theories in fundamental ways, remain useful for scientific theorists for making certain “local” predictions. This is how heterarchists use Marx and writers like him – helping themselves, when the opportunity arises, to make use of certain concepts that seem applicable – and disposing of the rest.
But even if heterarchists relegate much of Marx’s theories to “the dustbin of history,” this does not mean that they make a simplistic rejection of the entire tradition of criticism that accompanies socialism. Since heterarchy is the struggle against oppression and coercion, and heterarchism is the practice of intellectual work that best serves this struggle, the heterarchist method will be to take from this tradition what is useful and dispose of the rest. Moreover, the heterarchist project will recognize that Marx and his followers were only one, rather small part of the history of socialism and communism that begin in the ancient world in many vast traditions all over the earth from then until now and which will continue far into the future. Like Lyndon LaRouche, Karl Marx will be regarded by future historians as a brief, authoritarian diversion from the mainstream of radical (socialist) thought – perhaps worthy of study, but requiring no slavish devotion from thinking people.
Is heterarchy just another name for activism? What is the relationship between heterarchists and activist organizations for specific causes?
In a sense, heterarchy and activism could be considered synonyms. But let’s be clear about this.
Heterarchists do not see themselves as separate from other groups, but are looking for ways to work together with them, and to form broad wide-ranging consensus, while never giving up the right to critically examine them. As regards far as “particularist,” single-issue activist campaigns, such as nationalist struggles for specific ethnic groups (like indigenous peoples in Latin America, say) or campaigns for nuclear disarmament, movements to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, or drug-legalization parties, heterarchists will enthusiastically take part in such struggles, and many of the people involved in these struggles are heterarchists, whether they know it or not. On the other hand, heterarchists might simultaneously criticize such “particularist” movements, because they may fail to recognize how their struggle is connected to other, broader struggles, many of which are occurring on a broader scale (such as the rapidly evolving “progress” of corporate globalization). Heterarchists might point out the ways that such movements can work together with other movements and gain strength in larger numbers and more freely chosen, deliberate, determined organization (rather than a pell-mell lack of strategy). A heterarchist might point out that the dominant culture maintains its power by fragmenting opposition into such disparate, unconnected, marginalized groups and that by focusing too closely on one single-issue campaign, one plays into their hands, tacitly consenting to their strategy of “divide and conquer”. While heterarchists may participate in single-issue campaigns, they always struggle to contextualize each particular struggle in a larger understanding of the world, consciously and deliberately choosing the goals that each individual heterarchist sees as worth pursuing for the world. Through this struggle to contextualize each discrete struggle, heterarchists trace back each discrete struggle to its deep, root causes, and plan for how to transform society in broad, sustainable ways, and not just in marginal “tweaks”. This is how heterarchists maintain a radical (“to the root”) critique of capitalist society, and not just a revisionist, reformist critique.
However, heterarchists tend not to agree with the neo-situationist (perhaps pseudo-situationist) position that since single issue campaigns distract the proletariat from the broad, fundamental issue of class conflict, diverting energy into containable units, one should boycott all such movements. This amounts to rationalizing quietism and a strange kind of angry complacency. Heterarchists participate in, and transform, existing movements. As Veneigem himself pithily put it, “Think globally, act locally.”
Finally, although heterarchists make an active, participatory criticism of single-issue campaigns, struggling to contextualize them into a larger picture, they also do not fool themselves into thinking they ever have the whole picture. This is one of the mistakes of totalitarian systems like Marxism. While heterarchists may trace a contemporary issue to its deeper causes, a heterarchist never falls for the self-deception of believing that he has found the one pure deep explanation that explains absolutely everything. Heterarchists recognize that reality is too complex to be summed up in one simple sentence, and probably too complex to be understood by one finite brain. There will always be aspects of reality left out of every theory, problems left over after every “final” solution, and to attempt to find a final solution that solves the totality of everything is to be a totalitarian (which might be described as the very opposite of a heterarchist). In their critiques of various systems and movements, heterarchists must learn to struggle against both particularism and totalitarianism, always going back and forth. This is one of the reasons that the heterarchist struggle must be perpetual.
How do heterarchists relate to liberals and conservatives – “mainstream” politics?
Another way to understand heterarchy is that it is the most consistently non-utopian ideology. Marx believed that after the abolition of classes, the state would “wither away,” thus ushering a stateless, classless society which would be the culmination, or realization of the great progress of philosophy over history – a system so constructed as to necessitate no further political change or struggle. Anarchists believed in a similar future society, but wanted it now, without the intervening step of totalitarian government, or leadership by any vanguard society, party, or bureaucracy. In a sense, one might see these concepts as similar to the promise of the millennial Kingdom according to Christianity, the future society that will be ushered in by the return of Christ, or the Judaic notion of a restored Israel under the leadership of the Messiah, or the return of the twelfth Imam in certain forms of Islam, and so on.
Mainstream Liberalism and Conservatism are the most extreme possible forms of belief in utopian society possible. Not only do Liberals and Conservatives believe that it is possible that a society could exist which would be so constructed that no further radical political struggle would be necessary. Not only do they believe that such a society will someday happen, as in the above ideologies. Liberals and Conservatives, or what are in America known as Democrats and Republicans, actually believe that we live in such a society right now. Heterarchist thus tend to regard mainstream liberalism and conservatism as the most idealistic rejection of reality, the most self-deluded, utopian political vision that one could possibly entertain. The Doctor Panglosses that we call “mainstream intellectuals” are in fact neither, and are not worthy of serious consideration for anyone with any real intellectual integrity. They are either intelligent people who have sold out their honesty and responsibility to the highest bidder, or too stupid and ignorant to even bother refuting.
Heterarchism involves the clear-headed, sober, realistic recognition of basic truths about the world. First, heterarchists recognize that power exists. Second, heterarchists recognize that injustice exists, defining “injustice” as unnecessary suffering due to power. Heterarchists insist upon action now to fight this injustice, and demand that this action be wide-ranging and totally radical. This radical political transformation will not be accomplished so long as its participants believe in fairy-tales of magical kingdoms, but will instead only be possible through the implementation of careful and complex tactics. As part of this clear-headed conception of the world necessary for such action to be successful, heterarchists have a healthy dose of skepticism and tend to have their doubts that this struggle will ever end, recognizing that this struggle will likely go on as long as humans walk the earth.
[This text was written years ago. It looks like I last edited it in 2007, though there are sections that are much older than that. My opinions have shifted a bit since then... but I think it's worth bringing this to light.]
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